“You guys seem so happy,” my friend Cody commented. “It really seems like you’ve worked things out, and you’ve improved the relationship.”
“Yeah,” I smiled, “We have been working really hard.”
That was true. But the relationship hadn’t improved. So much so, in fact, that I had stopped asking friends for advice and venting to them – because what was going on beneath the surface was so far beyond normal. I knew that. Things were so bad that I had absolutely no one to turn to except for myself – least of all my partner.
On the outside, we looked perfectly happy – the complete opposite of what you’d think when you hear the words “abusive relationship.”
There was no hitting, no physical abuse, and I didn’t feel fearful on a daily basis – only occasionally, when he lost his temper, and I was a prisoner to his extreme rage.
But something wasn’t right. My body ached, and my hair was falling out. I always felt guilty, ashamed of something, like I had to walk on eggshells, and most resoundingly like I was WRONG. My actions were wrong, my feelings were wrong, who I am was wrong, and the way I loved and behaved in a relationship was wrong.
I questioned reality – was I too sensitive? Was I crazy? I certainly didn’t think I was, but I’d spent so much time in my situation that I just wasn’t sure anymore.
Here’s what I was sure of: I was losing myself. I struggled with confidence at work, believing I could do nothing right, which was turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I helplessly watched as friendships dissolved before my eyes, but I had lost all energy to keep up with social obligations, and I didn’t want to be honest with my friends or family about what was going on at home.
All my free time was spent thinking about the relationship, worrying about it, wondering what I had done wrong, and planning ways to mend it – only to have it unravel again on a weekly basis, seemingly out of nowhere, if my partner had had a bad day or was frustrated.
I couldn’t see it at the time, but I was in far too deep with a person who was abusing me. But because it didn’t resemble the concept of “abuse” I was familiar with, I assumed I was the problem – as many women tend to do.
What I didn’t know was that abuse can have many faces– and often, what starts as emotional or mental abuse often evolves into something more sinister. Here’s how it starts, and several key types of behavior to watch out for.
Emotional abuse/ gaslighting
We’ve all heard the term ‘gaslighting’ – I was transfixed by it from a young age, noting the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” that I had read in college. In the story, a woman is diagnosed with “hysteria,” so her husband decides it would be best to lock her away in a room to recover and recuperate. The woman, struggling with very severe mental illness, degenerates in the room, convinced she sees other women trapped in the wallpaper. A week later, when her husband comes to check on her, he finds his wife crawling around on all fours, tearing the wallpaper apart – convinced she had “saved” them.
Gaslighting occurs when someone tries to manipulate you into seeing anything other than reality for their own gain. A partner might do this to try and control you or to try and gain the upper hand in a fight. Gaslighting may make you question your own judgment or reality, and it is a form of emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse is a larger pattern of behavior that humiliates the victim for the perpetrator’s benefit. This may look like your partner belittling you, humiliating you, shaming you, or harassing you. Many victims of emotional abuse internalize the emotions, convinced they’ve done something truly wrong or are to blame
The concept of gaslighting seems so silly – why would anyone ever relinquish control of what they know to be true? Don’t we have a solid enough grasp of right and wrong to decide for ourselves, and to call someone out if they’re pushing a narrative that’s simply false?
Most of the time, yes. Although in a toxic relationship, the answer is often, no.
The first time my ex-partner ever said “That’s not what happened. You’re remembering it wrong,” I felt indignant – then overcome with self-doubt. What if I was remembering it wrong? What if my emotions were so intense at the moment that I simply was just wrong? What if my feelings were wrong, my thoughts were wrong, and my perception was wholly inaccurate?
Because I couldn’t be certain, I conceded, apologized, and tolerated his haughty, righteous attitude all the way home – seemingly pleased to have “won” the fight.
Years later, I look back at this and cringe. Many young women struggle with self-doubt because I believe we were raised to doubt ourselves and men were not. Young boys were encouraged to “follow their dreams” and “think big,” while young women are urged to “please your man” and learn “10 ways to look prettier.” I am directly quoting magazine covers I remember as a teenager.
This self-doubt I was raised with, grew with, and struggled with was the seed – and the negative cycle of emotional abuse watered it, helped it flourish, and caused it to blossom into something I couldn’t control.
Often, abuse in relationships begins with emotional abuse or gaslighting. It’s the first step, as the abuser makes their disrespect clear and tries to see what they can get away with. The next phases are often verbal abuse, power and control tactics, and intimidation.
Verbal abuse isn’t just heated arguments and raised voices. Verbal abuse is a pattern of spoken disrespect – yelling, violating your boundaries, cussing, calling you names, or berating you unreasonably.
Here’s what’s normal:
“God, why didn’t you take out the trash this morning? I asked you, and now we have to wait until next week. I’m upset about this.”
Frustrated, perhaps unkind, and could be communicated more respectfully.
Here’s what’s not:
“God, you are so stupid. Of course, you forgot to take out the trash again. You’re always doing something like this to make my life harder. You are the reason we have problems, and this is just one example.”
Name-calling, blaming, disrespect, and sweeping generalizations – all while stating that the victim is the reason for the problems. Does any of this sound familiar? If so – first, I am so sorry. Secondly, I want you to know that this is abuse – and there’s no excuse for it.
Power, Control, and Intimidation Tactics
Another common action of an abuser is trying to control their partner. This may include demanding to see your location when you’re apart, forbidding you to see friends, trying to distance you from friends and family, and controlling what you wear.
Even more extreme, they may demand to control your money – how much you make, where you spend it, where you invest – claiming that they know what’s best for you, and they’ll take care of it.
There’s a big difference between setting boundaries and maintaining financial openness in a relationship- those things are normal. Healthy, in fact. But when one person has all the power and the other person is either afraid or walks on eggshells to placate the controlling partner, the dynamic has soured. So how can you tell the difference between someone trying to set boundaries and abuse? There are a lot of ways, but here’s a big one: fear.
Intimidation: Has your partner ever thrown something at you? Punched a wall? Slammed doors? Driven recklessly because he knew it would scare you?
“Yes, but he’s never hit me.”
Two things: That’s still abuse, and these “intimidation” tactics are often a gateway to physical violence.
If your partner wants to scare you into submission, it may only be a matter of time before they take it a step further. And even if they never do, fear and intimidation tactics wreak havoc on your nervous system and emotions. They are hallmark signs of an abusive relationship.
So now you’re here – and perhaps you’ve realized that your relationship is abusive in some way. What’s to be done?
First and foremost, ensure your own safety: If your partner has threatened you, been violent with you, or you feel fear around them, find a safe place to go, or contact a domestic violence hotline.
If you feel the dynamic is toxic but not abusive, it can be helpful to seek therapy: A skilled therapist can help you resolve conflict and deal with things in a healthier way. If your partner won’t go to therapy, I still recommend going on your own. If you’re in a challenging relationship, you may need some extra support, and a therapist may help you see things in a new way and do what’s healthiest for yourself.
Decide what you’re willing to put up with and don’t waver in that decision: Are you willing to be called names? To be degraded? To be belittled? I personally am not, and I never will be.
Since leaving my toxic partnership, I realized that the whole point of a relationship is to bring happiness and joy to my life – and if it’s not adding value, it’s not worth it. If it’s stressing me out and taking value away, it’s not even a question. If you feel that your issues could be fixed, outline very firm boundaries with your partner that are never to be breached- not even when angry or frustrated.
Think about your future. Some questions to ask yourself: Do you want to feel this way in one year? In five? How about ten? Is this the partner you think can make you absolutely happy?
One thing that made a huge difference for me was in realizing that life is short, and limited, and I didn’t want to waste some of my best years with someone who didn’t make me happy, let alone someone who made me absolutely miserable. Most toxic and abusive relationships are hard to leave, and in my case, I was “trauma bonded,” which meant that I felt even more attached due to the abusive cycle I had become accustomed to.
When I left, I realized I had been suppressing so many parts of myself. I had the incredible opportunity to realize, reinvent, and save myself – no one else required.
Abusive relationships can happen at any age, to anyone. It does not discriminate – domestic violence impacts people of all ages, genders, demographics, and locations. Although I’ve written from a woman’s perspective about domestic violence, men can be victims as well.
It doesn’t matter how educated you are about abuse – it can still happen, and it may be hard to recognize amidst your confusion and self-doubt. Many people want to “change” their partners, or think they can fix their behavior. This is very unlikely to happen within the dynamic of abuse. If you’re still confused about whether or not your relationship is abusive, I suggest looking into the cycle of abuse. This may shed some light on your situation.
As an ending note: I am not a licensed mental health professional. At the end of the day, I must go on record to recommend two things if you’re in an abusive relationship: Seek professional help, and get yourself to a safe place away from the abuser. Even if you don’t believe you’re in imminent danger, an abusive cycle is never safe to exist in, no matter the circumstance.
Share this article and keep the conversation going! Let’s remind everyone no one deserves to be in an abusive relationship!